There was an uneasy silence. My wife and I just looked at each other. Two people that were about to do something that felt so wrong yet so right at the same time.
Cobblers to The Louvre
There we were standing in Rue Mouffetard, in the centre of Paris, and we felt like we had made one of the craziest decisions in our lives. We had decided not to go and see The Louvre Museum. It felt ridiculous. It felt liberating. Everybody who comes to Paris has to go and see The Louvre. It's just the way it is. But not us.
An article on the internet had started to change the way I viewed overseas travel - especially to major European cities. Titled ‘Why do cities by the numbers?', the basic message was ‘why traipse around museums if you're not a museum person?' I couldn't agree more. It just took me far too long to realize it.
We had dutifully walked around The Prado Museum in Madrid two years before - simply because everyone else did. All the guide-books say that if you haven't done The Prado, then you haven't been to Madrid. The building houses one of the finest collections of art in the world.
But after twenty minutes, the museum feels hot and stuffy. I keep getting in the way of other tourist's photographs - and I've seen one sixteenth century flabby arse and one bow and arrow-toting cherub too many. I begin looking at emergency exit signs and half wish a fire would suddenly break out.
A sense of foreboding
I knew deep down that The Louvre in Paris would be a similar experience. Yes, I really wanted to see The Mona Lisa and that statue with no arms, but did I want to queue around the block for a couple of hours to get in and then end up viewing the most famous painting in the world from a distance that made it look smaller than the average tea-towel. The answer was no.
Paris is of course the classic ‘city by numbers'. From the moment you check in to your hotel, or in our case, Marie-Francoise's place on Rue Buffon, it's a stressful race against time to tick off all those ‘must-sees' - Notre Dame, The Eiffel Tower, The Pantheon, The Arc de Triomphe, The Champs Elysees and The Sacre Couer at Montmartre. And you can't do The Sacre Couer without stopping off at the famous air vent in front of The Moulin Rouge and trying to recreate that famous Marilyn Monroe pose (always difficult when you're wearing jeans)
Having too many things to see makes it feel instantly like you've lost control of your holiday. Vacation spirits start to flag and it becomes impossible to do things at a pace that's anything less than hectic.
The days are planned and mapped out for you whether you like it or not. It's just a case of finding out how to get to each attraction and deciding the best order in which to see them in.
Let down again
And a city's ‘must-sees' are all too often a huge disappointment.
Topping the list of great big fat let-downs, I would have to insert Anne Frank's House in Amsterdam. Now I might not be a museum person but the Anne Frank House is something I had wanted to see for years. Even though I've never kept a diary myself, the story of a whole family hiding from the Nazis in a secret room behind a book-case, had always intrigued me. And so it became the first of Amsterdam's attractions to tick off on the must-see checklist.
A quick look at the comments on Trip Advisor then before heading off.
"Buy your tickets in advance"
"Don't go during school holidays"
"Be prepared to queue twice around the block"
"Get there early just as the sun comes up"
I've already gone off the idea completely. Why don't we just amble around the Red Light District and sit in one of Amsterdam's brilliant coffee shops, order a drink and one of those funny cigarettes and just watch the world go by?
But queue for Anne Frank's House we did. You like to think you're going to see history coming alive and the house preserved just as how the Nazis left it but to trek around the rooms becomes a dispiriting experience of endless signage that screams ‘No photos', ‘No eating and drinking' and ‘No entry'. And every exhibit, every grainy black and white photograph and every article of clothing is displayed behind perspex screens covered in tiny scratches and glass show-cases that could frankly do with a good clean.
That's the way to do it
Prague in the Czech Republic is another example of a city that you feel compelled to do by the numbers. You can stand on the banks of the River Elbe and watch a whole tourist population shuffle down to the St Charles Bridge and then shuffle back up to the castle and so on and so forth. Everyone's swept along by some sort of invisible force.
After a quick trip to the over-rated and hugely underwhelming Prague Castle, I said to my wife "enough!" - grabbed her by the hand, jumped aboard the first tram heading towards the outskirts of town and we wandered around for hours in a Prague neighborhood where tourists fear to tread.
We ended up in a dingy, back-street Czech restaurant where we couldn't understand a word of the menu but the owners greeted us like long lost family and we had a six-course feast for pocket change. Now that's the way to do a city!
One place on my bucket list that I'd still like to visit one day is Cairo in Egypt. And you know those great big triangular-shaped constructions located on the outskirts of the city? Well, I might go and see them. And then again, I might not.